"Incoming from Alpha Security!" called out Xion, a small furry Wonton, whose species had been rescued from extinction by means of the time travel portals exploring Andromeda, and the current internal communications officer.
"I shall take it," replied Harold, whose tone of voice sent shivers down the spine of the Deck Crew.
After sealing the communication to make it private, Harold opened the channel, and said, in a voice that would have made a Wooly Mammoth run for hiding, "Report!"
"There is not much to report. The incident has been closed."
"Incident? Since when is a murder an incident?"
"This is standard protocol..."
"It is? By whose orders?"
"The Emperor considers murders incidents, you say? And muggings get pushed under the carpet? No wonder I almost broke an ankle walking down the hall last week!"
"I do not know who you are to talk to me like this, and I do not care. It is closed and that is final!"
"Is that so? We are the Emperor, you jerk, We decide who lives or dies on this ship, We are the pinnacle of the THEOCRACY that rules Thebes, in case you do not know. And a theocracy, in case you are so ignorant as to be unfamiliar with the word, means RULED BY GODS. We are Gods, Mortal, and We do not appreciate MORTALS taking in their hands Our prerogatives, Our laws, and Our protocols. Got it?"
"The Hell you are! The last one I talked to was a female and there are no such things as bitches as Gods! So shove it!" With that Harold noticed the communication light turn red, meaning the communication had been cut at the other end. The temperature on the Bridge dropped several degrees in a flash, snow flurries began falling off the ventilation fans, and a powerful wind developed, blowing any unattached piece of equipment into a deadly tornado.
"So, Our wife Annabelle is a Bitch? So We are to be ignored? So We are to be overruled by paper-pushers?" Mitsuko appeared in Harold's right hand just before he ported, in a huge bang, right to the Communication Desk of the Alpha Security Station, where an individual was just standing up, smirking.
"You the dead walking I was talking a second ago?" asked Harold.
"I do not know who you are, but you have no right to be in this office!" yelled the Police Officer and future cold cut as he pulled a phaser out of his belt. He never had the occasion to pull the trigger as Mitsuko was brought down in an arc that bisected his body at neck level, sending the head flying backward to smash on the communication control desk and flooding said desk and control with gushes of blood.
"Anyone else wants a close shave?" said Harold. "You live, breath, and survive by Our will alone, and We will not tolerate disrespect of Our office, Our family, Our Directives, Our Protocols, and Our Laws. Calling Our Wife a bitch to Our face, calling Us an impostor, and showing disrespect will bring swift retribution, as you can see. When you call on the Bridge, you are talking to the Imperial family, or to one of its direct representatives. Do not ever forget it! Clean up that mess, and dispose of the garbage! Who is in command at this Security Station?"
"He's not. Who else is available to give me a real report on the MURDER case my Wife asked you collection of over-inflated balloons to enquire on?"
"What murder case? We have a low-level incident report, and no one gave it much attention." said a big loud-mouth, whom just could not take a hint.
"The murder of O589-200-12, that is who?"
"But it is a tree, and you can not murder a tree!" said a narrow-minded security officer, too dumb to understand that if the Emperor himself had deigned move to their office, it was a serious matter.
"A tree, a simple tree? And what about other life-forms?" asked, in a dangerous voice that threatened to throw blades.
"Imperial Decree T-50-2444354-A-12 states that only intelligent life-forms are to be investigated."
"Show me that decree! NOW!"
A paper was brought on the desk and Harold read it, while keeping an eye on the assembling officers, quite aware that some might try to use his lack of attention to his surroundings in order to attack him.
"Who is that signature?" he asked throwing the paper back at their face.
"Chief of Police Uruk-Hai. He has been in office for the past 35 cycles..."
"AI-4, port the chief of Police Uruk-Hai to this station, four feet in front of me, stripped of anything, including clothes! By the way, did you know of that directive?"
"No your Highness. It never got recorded since it did not have the imperial Seal. Porting!"
Uruk-Hai, whom had been busy enjoying some side-benefits of his job (meaning sex with a 'guilty' party) materialised in front of Harold, male bit stiff, and in the middle of a forward push that had him slam the pole hard on the rather sandy-like anti-slippery carpet, much to his displeasure.
"Uruk-Hai?" asked Harold, in an icy tone that managed to make the carpet slippery just as said Uruk-Hai tried to stand up and sent him back on his sore now very public privates. "I asked if you are Uruk-Hai, not to kiss my boots!"
Uruk-Hai tried to grip Harold's trousers to get up, getting a mighty kick in the face for his efforts. "Answer me from where you are!"
"Yes!" said the individual, whose voice had been altered by a bloody nose and a few broken teeth.
"You sign Imperial Police decrees?"
"It is my privilege."
"NO, it is MINE, and MINE ALONE!" yelled a furious Harold.
"How come there are decrees signed by someone named Harp, others by a certain Enron, and others still by a bloke named Sitar? Is this a concert hall?"
"If you had bothered getting your head out of your ass hole, you would have known who Imperial Princes Harp and Sitar were, and who King Enron is!"
"As if someone could be king at 12, and Prince of Magic at 5! You are taking me for a boat ride!"
"Oh yes, a boat ride across the Styx, you moron!" Mitsuko swooped down on the Orc, slicing him length-wise along the spine from the genitals to the skull. The body fell into two halves, sprouting blood, bones, muscles, bowels, and brain tissue along the clean cut.
"Maybe I should recycle myself in butchery, to pass my temper!" Harold then turned and faced the shocked Police Officers. "The ONLY police decrees that are valid are those that carry the Imperial Seal AND Our signature, authenticated by the Artificial Intelligences. If a decree is not found on the data base, it is a fake, and must be ignored, the author brought for judgement by the the Imperial Bench to face swift and deadly justice. And, by definition, ANYTHING presented to you on paper is fake. Got it? The Artificial Intelligence and the Imperial family are the only ones allowed to use ridulian sheets since it is a regulated substance. Review your basic protocols, if you do not wish to join these two corpses that will be sent to the recycling bin, namely some meat-eating Ants. Now, get to work and find out who killed O589-200-12 and put your best efforts into the investigation. If I have to come back on a fact-finding mission, heads will roll!"
Harold ported back to the Bridge, leaving behind a stunned group of Officers, a disorganised police station, and a furious group of individuals who saw in him a threat to their livelihood. The majority began yelling and laying out plans for insurrection, unaware they were signing their own death warrant as the Artificial Intelligences recorded everything and began planning a counter-insurrection which would take effect very, very shortly.
Harold's arrival, covered in body parts, smelling of crap, blood and innards, and glowing in Imperial Fury, did not go unnoticed. Colibri, who had taken his station at the Imperial command desk during Harold's foray in the sordid trappings of low-level power struggles, looked at the Emperor with some trepidation.
"I need not ask what happened. It can be resumed in a pair of words: Blood Bath?"
"I got a request to implement protocol I-zero between the time you ported from the Alpha Security Station to here. I approved. If the Artificial Intelligences want this, it means there is serious trouble brewing."
"I am glad we took you under our wings, Colibri, you have proven invaluable over time. Tell me, what does T-50-2444354-A-12 mean, according to you?"
"At a guess, it is a dating system. T for Thebes; 50 for fifty years, 244354 a serial number; A is a class level, and 12 means that, during that year, it was the twelfth such document of that class."
"It makes sense, but it worries me at the same time. That means paper-pushers have subverted Our administration to a high degree, to a point it has become systematic."
"I was reading a history of China, of long lost Earth, and they act just like the administration of that country, with inner fighting to establish their little empires within the Empire; they were called Mandarins and were reputed for their flagrant abuse of power, their greed, and their systemic ass-licking of the Emperor while ignoring him the moment they walked out of his sight. It seems to be very common problem."
"And what did the Emperors of old do to solve the problem?"
"They never did. They tried, but you can not sit on someone's shoulder to monitor what they do all the time."
"They could not, but We can. AI-1, focus on monitoring the actions of so-called Mandarins, as described by Colibri. I WANT TO KNOW if they piss off the bowl, got it?"
"Given some are oldies, they are more likely to pee their pants than on the side of the toilet bowl."
"If they are that old, they are in need of retirement. AI-1, do it."
"What if they refuse?" said AI-1.
"We are under I-zero, right? I stand by Prince Colibri's order. You know what to do. Some areas are in need of fertilisation, some Insects need fattening, and some Fish need a change of diet. You know what to do."
"You know it will probably destabilise the overall administrative structure?"
"We gave them something to do, We could administer directly with your support, AI-3, and We will if need be. We trust you to follow instruction rather than greed, and We are beginning to wonder if distributing positions of power to those that seemed to look for it was such a good idea in the first place. We gave them rope, it is they that made the noose."
"The first ones to be cleansed off were just ported in the bottom of the Atlanticus Oceanic mid-ridge fault we recreated for the need of deep-sea dwellers from Earth. At thirty-three thousand feet of water, the issue was a collection of rather thin Mandarin crepes. It even looked like the real thing, all reddish and seedy," AI-4 informed the two Imperials.
"Continue. Rebels are not welcomed on a ship, on Our ship. We do not plan to live the Odyssey of the Bounty on board a ship designed by My family, assembled by My family, and put into action by My family. Beheadings of Kings are for the French, not for Atlanteans, and especially not for Us."
Meanwhile, on Solarius, Atlanteans were busy mapping, doing geological samplings, and other important research in view of not missing anything of importance. Things progressed roundly... Until...
"Enron, sir!" was heard on the radio network by everyone. The tone told the others a problem had occurred or was in development.
"Clear the waves! Priority to the one calling me!" ordered Enron.
"Sir, come! Quick!"
Enron did not hesitate, and neither did Thorsten, even if he was currently at the other end of the globe, ready to explore a new nest site. Both materialised a few inches off the panicky Legionnaire. Beyond them they saw a group of natives, busy preparing something that looked like a triggering device of some sort.
«Harp! We need you! Now!»
«Porting in two minutes.»
«The Hell with two minutes, Harp. When I say now, I mean now!» said Thorsten.
Understanding from the tone that delays were out of the question, Harp dived behind the other three, porting as soon as he was out of view from the Octopus, for lack of a better name.
"What's the issue?"
"Drain that magic! It is an explosive device and from its configuration, location, and size, it is designed to destroy the Planet!" said Thorsten.
Harp did not hesitate. He created a magic null field around the device, rendering it totally ineffective and inoperable.
"Verify there are no others!" ordered Harp via radio-net.
"We have found only one other site similar to this one, at the convergence of the intercontinental fault lines. However, it only showed a pile of equipment we did not understand the use of the material and ported it off to Base 1 pending further investigation."
"So, in effect, they plan to destroy their home-world once everything is launched. They probably have been in isolation for the duration and are continuing according to a set timetable. Well, time to play Chronos8 ("Chronos: Greek God of Time.") and disturb that timetable. First step: recovery of the overcharged Orichalque, split in masses of less then 50 grams, so it does not self-detonate." explained Harp as he proceeded.
«What order are you following?»
«From oldest to newest, Sitar. Any better path to suggest?»
«Maybe, no... continue what you are doing. How did they surcharge Orichalque?»
«That, Sitar, is one thing I wanted to keep under wrap so as not to give ideas to would-be revolutionaries. Thebes is Orichalque, and overcharging even a section could have a catastrophic, uncontrollable, cascading effect. Do you want that knowledge to spread and reach unscrupulous individuals? I am not stupid enough to believe they would think before using. Revolutionaries are rather short-sighted! Ah, we are done. Time to establish contact. Sitar, can you port? I think we are past hiding from the Sedecimus9 ("Sedecimus: Latin, meaning 16-legged.").»
«Yes, Sitar. We have been producing them every time we find a new life-form and this is no exception.»
Sitar did pop to where Harp was, missing the startled reaction of the Sedecimus upon his sudden disappearance.
"So, brother mine, what is the issue?"
"First Contact. Given what we observed, I do not think it will go well. They seem to be a group of fanatics hell-bent on blowing up the Planet."
"I did, but they are worse than the Orcs of the military caste. Their mind is locked. It is as if they were genetically selected to be narrow-minded, with one-track minds."
"A perfect definition of religious fanatics. We have saved enough of their species to dispose of those without endangering their basic genetic diversity. Bye-bye religious fanatics!"
Sitar materialised in the midst of the fanatics, who were busy trying to figure out why their Magic force field had suddenly collapsed. The moment they saw Sitar, they charged, triggering automatic responses from the God of War of Atlantis. Members flew in all directions, heads fell, death sang its morbid march, and quickly, the ground was covered with quivering meat bits that exploded upon sudden de-pressurisation as their suits were ripped open by Sitar's blade of Office.
"Problem solved," said Sitar, with a carnivorous smile that sent shivers to his brother.
«Guys, come back to the nest, quick!»
"What now? I can not even have a pee in peace?" said Sitar as he activated the force field that cleared his blade of any residue, before porting behind Harp, Enron, and Thorsten to where Paschal was located.
The sudden arrival of Harp, Sitar, Enron, Thorsten and even Greywolf, whose stance on four legs clearly showed even in the FSS, stopped what had been occurring to perturb Paschal.
"What is the issue?" asked Harp.
"It has been slamming against the Orichalque window with increasing madness..."
"I see. Let me re-enter the trance state. Greywolf, mind getting behind us? I think we are in for some mental gymnastics and you are not the best at those."
«Okay, but it better calm down or else it will know what it means to piss off a Wolf.»
"Do not worry, if she pisses off someone, it will be me," replied Sitar. "Harp, we need a concerted approach. You do first contact and move forward; Thorsten and I will back you up with concerted mental phase. Enron, Paschal, you are in reserve; in last resort, Mr Greywolf, but only in last resort, you got it? This is a mental war; it has four fully functional brains that work in harmony, and each of us only have two. That is why I want this approach. Levitate up further. I want her to really realise we are not to be played with. Two feet, to clearly show the separation. Sit in the lotus position. Greywolf, that is not possible for you, so just lay down on the ground as if you were taking a nap. That, alone, should send a message!"
Everyone took position, in an arc, eyeing the furious Sedecimus batting on the Orichalque window with increasing fury. Once everyone was relaxed, even with the repeated thump-thump of the tentacles, Sitar continued directing the readiness.
"Harp, you explored first contact. Anything to add to your report?"
"Synchronise! Five... Four... Three... Two... One... Zero! Sync!" ordered Sitar. The mental synchronisation created a powerful mental set that allowed all those involved to become one, in this case, it was like a 20-fold brain set. Yet, Sitar was not done.
"Ready to come aboard, Greywolf?"
The Wolf had lived the experience of a mental merge more than a couple of times, but solely with the Wolf Conscience and as a diffuse feeling. It would be the first time he would become fully integrated into an Atlantean mental melt and he was a bit nervous.
«Do not worry, you will not lose yourself in us, no more than we will lose ourselves in you or in each other. Relax, breath deeply and slowly. Consider, imagine, a restful scene, say a peaceful scene with a gentle wind blowing in the grass, and the rumble of a far waterfall, the soft caress of waves rolling sand on the beach. Feel the wind ruffle your fur, the water licking your forepaw toes.» The gentle, soft, and deeply calming voice of Sitar finally brought Greywolf's mind to where the God of War wanted it, and Sitar gently brought the Wolf in the meld.
«There. Open your eyes.»
Greywolf opened his eyes to a rainbow of colours, a variety of smells he had not even imagined possible, and, for the first time in his life, he heard the song of the atoms resonating to the feather touch of the drumsticks of light. As he questioned each new sensation, he discovered he knew the answer to the mystery.
«Let us give our Wolf Brother a few minutes to accommodate the true nature of the universe.»
«I did not know you had poetry so ingrained in you, Sitar.»
«Enron, as Death, I am Life, as Life, I am Death. This is the dance to which I am conveyed, and the music to which I Dance is the Music of the Universe.»
After ten minutes, Greywolf finally got out of his trance, and breathed deeply of a satisfaction and a sense of belonging he had never felt before.
«Ready to take your place, Greywolf?»
«Okay. Mental phase shift! Now!»
The group moved their mental frequencies to match the range of the Sedecimus. As they neared the range, the violence of the mental battering grew exponentially, but never even dented the mental shields they had set around their collective conscience.
«We are set,» said Harp.
«Initiate contact! You have command of the Collective, little Brother,» replied Sitar.
«Not so little!»
«Get your brain out of the gutter!»
Harp focussed at the mental storm that was assaulting their barrier and then let out a mental yell that targeted the integrating structure of the complex brain structure: «Enough!»
The yell had several consequences: first, the attacks stopped, as the Sedecimus fell, paralysed, at the bottom. Second, the gills slowed, stopping entirely to flip open and close.
«Oh, no, you will not commit suicide! We shall not allow it!» Harp said as he noticed the change. He then sent in regular electric pulses re-establishing the breathing cycle until the Sedecimus recovered its original, at rest, colours.
Deprived of a way out, the Sedecimus replied by mentally yelling «Murderers! Destroyer of Worlds! Death rather than Slavery!»
«Wrong identity. The Slavers are dying. Yes we destroy worlds: Theirs.»
«They can not die! They are Gods! We tried everything we could, but they destroyed our worlds. This was our last ditch refuge, as we thought they could not cross the void of fuel.»
«They did not. We do not use fuel the same way. Anyway, we are in the process of emptying the Galaxy of its fuel reserves so, should some of them escape our wrath, they will be stuck where they are. We figured out you were not native of this world. From what you said, you had at least two more?»
"Yes, two. They destroyed their Suns. We were in the process of installing ourselves at the bottom of the waters when the flash of the destruction reached us. Hundreds died instantly. My entire family! My Children! I was laying eggs with one of the others when this occurred, as it was our reproduction cycle period.»
«Fifty-two nests, two males, fifty females, way below the requisite, as you are aware, to insure diversity; sadly, one of the males died. We found him brought down to his bones by the macrophages.»
«We were down here to establish a base, not to insure survival in isolation. We were expecting further migrants to supplement us. They never came.»
«They probably never left. We have recorded the destruction of the two stars, and nothing escaped the grips of the Slavers.»
«Do not lie to me: I feel they are all dead.»
«Do you have a natural hibernation cycle? Because, from what we have observed, they are in hibernation. Is this normal?»
«We do, but only in extremely stressful situations.»
«Such as a sudden icing-over of the oceans, a massive de-pressurisation, and such extreme conditions we found on the surface?»
«Is that how things are now? I thought the surface burned. From the wails of pain that echoed from my people, I assumed it was fire.»
«Massive radiation exposure is similar to fire.»
«I see. And I feel the truth of your thoughts.»
«Are you responsible for the technological advances of the surface people?»
«The Proglocks? Yes. They were already technologically advanced, bare years from reaching space. We pushed them forward, and involved them in a massive infrastructure to insure the defence of their Word. They were divided, but once told of the Slavers, they united. Except for a minority. There are always minorities that do not believe or do not wish to stand up for their own survival.»
«We know. We destroyed such a group barely a breath ago. We give them the name of fanatics. Their brain is wired in such a way they are blind to facts. They were busy charging a doomsday device that would have split this world in two. It is now disassembled. And they, destroyed. They were using overcharged Orichalque,» added Harp, sending an image of the atomic structure of Orichalque in overload.
«We should not have taught them the use of the power metal you called Orichalque. They were not ready.»
«Fanatics are never ready for anything. You did good, overall, as it allowed them to be ready for recovery. This world is no longer viable. We finished their work, and our forces are completing the recovery cycle they had begun. Shortly, the oceans will be empty of life. You are offered a chance to join us.»
«Why should we? We lost everything!»
«That is a temporary setback. I am the master of Time and Magic, of which Orichalque is but one vessel. We are recovering thousands of lost species, destroyed by the Slavers depredation over time. It is a slow process, as we need to find the life-support planets, study the ecosystem, prepare our ship to receive and sustain the life, and then recover the last survivors, just before the Slavers send in their Erasers.»
«Why not remove the Erasers, as you call them, whatever they are?»
«We could, but it would tip the Slavers to the presence of a force they know nothing about. That, in turn, would produce a weapons race. For now they are sure those they dispose of are disposed of, and are no wiser as to their real fate. Their Erasers seem to do the work perfectly, simply because there is nothing to erase when they come.»
«And the Erasers do not notice the issue?»
«Dumb killing machines do not report success, they report failures.»
«Harp? The Legions have finished their assigned task. What should we do now?»
«Implement the recovery cycle. Scan the oceans, and put everything in stasis. Do we have enough launchers and stasis chambers for that or should we wait, Paschal?»
«We will be short, but I can put the Legion to building additional silos and launchers. Using Magic and the 500 or so Mages, things should be done quickly.»
«Proceed. Keep me informed of progress.»
After getting the okay from Paschal, Harp returned to the exchange with the Sedecimus.
«Where were we? Oh yes. I was offering you recovery. As I said, we can travel through time and do recovery forays. We plan to do it for the Proglocks. Their preparation technicians and crew members died during the massive radiation. We do not want their family members to feel left out because we did not go the extra step. It will be no issue recovering your people as well, since they will be in the same time frame and the same location. However, that will have to wait until our mother ship returns. It went off to deal with a galactic predator.»
«A group of Slavers?»
«No, something else. The Slavers are being dealt with by our Space Fleets as they scour each galactic arm and remove their nests, recover their slaves, and track the slaves' origins. That task is huge, as the Slavers have been at it since the initial formation of this Galaxy. We need to track down the evolution over time of each star, find the life-sustaining planets, remove the targets, and reconstruct the varied ecosystems. As you can imagine, it is not done overnight. Each fleet is accompanied by armadas of recovery vessels, that travel through time, map the ecosystems, take them out before the first Eraser lands, tracks through time the progress of the Slavers, their battles, and recover their slaves as each ship gets destroyed in their internal fighting. By and large, it is rather boring detective work, until we spring into action as a skirmish or a massive battle unfolds. We are invisible to them because their crew vanish just before the ship is destroyed, and the only losses are the Slavers themselves. The crew are put in stasis until we find their original Planet and their planetary ecosystem is rebuilt in compressed space-time. That is also done by back-tracking through time.»
«That ship must be huge!»
«It is, with billions upon billions of compressed ecosystems that occupy virtual spaces no bigger than my fingernail, yet comprise entire planetary ecosystems. We watch their evolution over time and see to it that each species is given a fair chance at acquiring status in Our world. Some succeed, others fail. But they have their chance.»
"Oh, hello, Samson, it has been a while since we talked on the Bridge, and generally, when I meet you, it is between rushes."
"Hello, Harold. Do you know where my Son is?"
"On Solarius with a couple of mine. Why?"
"I wanted to know what to do with a trouble-maker."
"No, he's a kid. If it had been an adult, the solution would be as you suggest, but this one is about the same age as Enron, and seems to be the embodiment of indiscipline."
"A Harp emulator? A prankster?"
"And I do not think Enron would take kindly to being called a kid, you know."
"And he is not around, so I can."
"Wait until I tell him!"
"You would not dare? You would! Me and my big mouth!" said an alarmed Father.
"So, what did that trouble-maker do? Rob the Elvin Seal?"
"No, he made a copy of it. A very good copy of it, in fact."
"Ah, a Forger. Maybe the best thing to do is to give him some work in the domain."
"What? Make forgeries? Are you nuts?"
"No, find ways to prevent them. How did you find out about the forgery practice?"
"I have been tracking forgeries and I noticed a slow improvement in workmanship. The last one was so perfect I had to use a scanner and a comparative analysis with the help of AI-6 to detect minute faults. What gave him away was his interest in rather childish gains from his forgeries, childish because he only needed to ask to get, and he used a rather complex stratagem, way beyond what was necessary, to get what he wanted."
"What was it he wanted?"
"Candy. That tipped the trader. He found it funny to get a royal bill of expenditures for candy. He honoured it, just in case, but he tracked me down and showed me the paper. I almost fell off my chair. Sixty Crowns of candy? Both a ridiculously small amount but also a fortune, given that if I did order candy for the Court, it would be in the order of several thousand Crowns, not 60! And a huge amount... for a single individual."
"I see what you mean. Are you sure Harp is not involved? You know how sweet toothed he is!"
"No, Harp manufactures his own candy by Magic. Thank the Gods! Otherwise we both would be on the straw beds, Harold!"
Both men laughed, remembering how voracious Harp's appetite was.
"So, what do I do?"
"Bring him to me. I will ask Colibri to help. He too is rather young, and may be able to get the kid into something more constructive than forgeries."
As Samson turned to leave, Harold called him back. "Did you honour the bill?"
"Oh yes, I did. That forgery is now encased in a glass frame with a mention as the best in the history of the Elvin kingdom, right beside the worst one, you remember which!"
"Oh yes, a discounted product!"
"Your sense of humour is as bloody as ever! Anyway, do not go too far. I have the kid in my chambers."
"Alone? You better check he has not replaced originals by copies in the interval!"
"Barely five minutes and you think? You do! Be right back!"
Annabelle walked in to a bloodied Harold, who was rolling on the floor laughing his heart out, leaving a trail of blood on the floor.
"Have you gone blood-mad, husband?" asked the Empress with a huff, looking at her husband from the lower steps of the Imperial Command chair as Harold kept rolling on the floor, barely taking a breath before another spew of laughter rang out. The Emperor tried to explain, between short breaths, laughter, and spasms that made Annabelle think he might be on some form of nerve gas.
"Sam... Samson... Samson... just left... left on the run... run... after realising... he had abandoned... his royal chambers... to a... high-calibre forger!" Harold exploded again, red in the face from lack of oxygen. "I... I... needed this... so, so bad... after the earlier events... that had me... gut some idiots..."
Annabelle looked at Harold, trying to piece together what could have brought her husband to the edge and over. "Go change, Husband. You stink!" She turned to Xion, and called out "I want a Mage on the double to clean up this mess. I will not walk, nor sit, in a bloodied work station!"
Shortly, a Mage reported to the Bridge and with precise motions of his fingers, removed all blood from the upholstery, the working controls, and the carpet. A grand move then replaced the blood smell with vanilla.
"It is no problem, your Highness. I live to serve. I will follow the blood trail out."
"It will be difficult. Harold ported to the bathroom in our suite to wash up and change. The clothes will be recreated by the washing machine Harp built for us so we could get fresh clothes every minute we needed them.
"Prince Harp has done a similar machine in the Magical Schools, the military barracks, and just about anywhere prone to producing dirty clothing. Mind you, they do not see much use outside of these locales, as most have taken to nudism. May I retire then?"
"Yes, and again, thank you."
"Xion, can you tell me what produced the temper tantrum of my husband?"
"Sorry, your majesty, he instituted private communications protocols with an incoming contact from Alpha Security, just before porting out and coming back in dripping blood and guts. I saw the flash of Excalibur (or was it Mitsuko?) just before he ported out. Maybe the Artificial Intelligences might know something."
"And you had the good sense not to enquire. That is a good mark for your discretion, Xion, it is to be noted."
A small green flash on the control desk informed Annabelle that the Artificial Intelligence monitoring the Bridge had noted and updated Xion's work record.
Barely minutes later, Samson walked in accompanied by a very nervous young Elf and Colibri.
"Hello, Annabelle. I was expecting Harold?"
"He is off to wash the blood of whomever pissed him off. He should be back shortly, Samson. What brings you around? We are not yet ready to port back to Solarius."
The young Elf fainted at hearing Annabelle's comment, surprising Annabelle, Colibri and Samson.
"I told you not to scare the shit out of the kid, Samson!" said a furious Colibri, as he enervated the prone body on the floor. "What was this about a blood-covered Emperor fit to be tied and swimming in his enemies' blood? It was not that bad, and you know it! After all, I was there when he popped back in and unless he gutted an army while I took a whizz, it certainly did not become rivers of blood causing short-circuits and electrical arcs between stations! When will adults learn to act responsibly? I wonder!"
Samson's red face was compounded by the explosion of laughter from the entire Bridge Crew while they watched the diminutive Colibri face down Samson, arms crossed on his chest, tapping his right foot on the floor, and eyes ablaze with contempt.
"Come sit down, Daniel. When I think he did not even bother to ask your name before going all mighty and powerful on you."
"Nor my age."
Nor your age. How old are you, Daniel?
"Ten. I am a métis."
"A half-blood. I am the product of sex between an Elf and an Atlantean. Dad is the Elf, mom is the Atlantean."
"So, in effect, you are like all of us. We are all, to some degree, the result of interbreeding, even the Royal family. We do not put up with unnecessary nomenclatures."
"I wish my dad thought this way. Maybe he would have stayed around to help mom raise me."
Annabelle, Colibri and Samson frowned. Colibri was the first to react.
"Track his dad, AI-1. Genetic mapping please, so the creep can not deny his role in fathering this child."
"No need, Prince Colibri. His Father is a well-known walking dick, more intent on finding holes to put his pole in than taking responsibilities for his actions. He has fathered over 160 children."
"His stiffy reign of terror is over. I want him castrated in public within five minutes! Sorry, Danny, you will not have a dad shortly, well only a castrate for one if he survives that is, but knowing Harold, that will only produce good outcomes for you... and the other children of that dickhead.... now dick-less, I hope?"
"The execution order only needs your signature, Prince Colibri. It is available at station three, with an electronic pen. And naturally, the Imperial Seal."
"I can supply that!" said Danny, completely forgetting Annabelle's presence.
"Annabelle, may I present to you the best forger of the Empire, if his forgery of the Imperial Seal is as good as his of the Elvin Kingdom's Seal?"
"You seem to take it with a grain of salt, Samson?"
"If all forgers only do it for candy, I am willing to supply him with the original."
"Where would be the fun in that?" Danny said.
Colibri exploded in laughter. "The pleasure of the risk? The thrill of outsmarting the others?"
"All of the above and more. It is a great feeling to be able to do something illegal and get away with it."
"Keep him away from Archduke Coubertin!" said Annabelle.
"Coubertin is one of the only Archdukes I know that tried to defraud his own treasury by doing illegal traffic with smugglers!" commented with a smirk Annabelle, much to the laughter of the others. "He too found the feeling of adventure irresistible, especially while his dad was still the Archduke."
"I want to meet the guy! We might have tricks to exchange!"
"No, you will not!" said Harold, as he walked on the Bridge. "So, you met our esteemed Forger, Annabelle. What do you make of him?"
"That we are lucky he shows no real talent at Magic, or we might be bankrupt."
"And Colibri, do you have any suggestions? Smart as you are, I am sure you have some tasks for that little defrauder!"
"I was thinking of putting him on designing anti-fraud papers, so that we can be sure no one tries to imitate the Seals successfully and get away with it. But there is a caveat here."
"And what is it?"
"He would need access to the real things to test his ideas. And the possibility to create fakes with the best tools available to test them against the originals."
"Try to fraud in order to stop fraud? That sounds an interesting proposal, Prince Colibri. What do you think of this..."
"Danny? I thought you said your name was Daniel?" said Colibri.
"Danny for familiar people, and since I will be working in close proximity with you, we might as well forego formality."
"I like him already!" said Harold. "Danny it is then!"
"You and your dislike for formality!"
"Samson, I wear clothes only when I am in command, on deck, or in conditions requiring some form of protection, and you know it. So, I am usually wearing informal, and I like it that way!"
"If being nude as a new-born is informal dress..."
"It is! Find me something less informal and I shall wear it!"
"Do you have your Seals to show to the Emperor, young man?"
"Sure." Daniel took out a small bag containing a collection of boxes, candle sticks, and a flint stone. He also took out, from another pocket, blank parchment, and, in a side pocket, a rainbow of tiny ink bottles, a sharp knife, and a feather.
"I need a wooden surface to write?"
Harold flicked his hand and a nice wooden table appeared on the floor in front of the Command deck steps.
"You have been practising, Harold?"
"Yes Samson. I was tired of asking Harp for the pee pot. It was getting embarrassing, especially when he asked me if I was not suffering from prostate cancer, the brat!"
The smirk of Annabelle told them nothing of the sort was apparent in his bedchamber activities and that no one had to worry.
Danny unrolled the parchment and began writing an execution order for his dad, detailing what was to be done with raw clarity. The others watched, amazed, as he wrote the text with a pure Atlantean script, not a single spelling error or faulty form visible.
"That writing seems familiar?"
"It is the Imperial Scribe's writing..."
"Thoth? He needs to see this!"
"You know Paschal is off-ship, Harold."
"Remind me when he gets back on-board to show him this."
"You will remember."
Finished with his primary handiwork, Daniel examined the end result. Satisfied with what he saw, he lay the sheet flat on the surface, inserted a sponge under the parchment and immobilised the paper with four tiny, but heavy flat rocks.
"I hope the fire alarms will not trigger. I need to melt the red wax and this gives off heat that trigger the sprinklers. I lost my first try at this because of such an event. I barely managed to pick everything up and make my escape before the fire brigade showed up."
"Bridge AI, lock fire sprinklers to off!" ordered Colibri.
"Acknowledged. Sprinklers off."
"I could have done that?"
"Not likely, Danny, as you do not have the proper clearance."
"Yay! Another thing to break into! Clearance levels..."
"Me and my big mouth!" grumbled Colibri.
Smirking at Colibri, Daniel brought a big wide candle to stand in a clearly artisanal candle holder, lit its wick, and waited until the flame stabilised. Once this was done, he pulled a red wax block from his wax kit, cut a piece of it using his pocket knife, and placed it in a copper container that had a small beaker to drop the liquid wax on the paper with a certain uniformity.
"I noticed that wax enters parchment rather quickly and that Imperial Seals have a rather standard thickness. I tested different waxes and their interaction with different parchments. The quantity I took off the wax brick matches relatively closely the quantity found in an Imperial Seal. The parchment is of lesser quality so it will spread more. This being taken into account, the result is that I actually underestimated by 10% the quantity of wax required."
The observers were shocked. That kid had been at his task for how long to gain that level of knowledge? Daniel ignored their big eyes and focussed on his work. They saw him pass the beaker repeatedly over the flame, never staying in the same place more than a fraction of a second.
"The heat must be spread so the melting process is uniform. Bubbles leave to be desired and create taint variations in the Seal."
Ten minutes later, the wax had completely melted. Daniel gently turned the beaker on its side so the wax dripped on the paper uniformly, creating a layer of soft, but not liquid, red wax with a medium thickness. He then quickly passed the Imperial seal over the open flame of the candle and rolled it on the soft wax, before quickly slamming a fist on the wooden butt of the seal. He then gently removed the bronze seal from the paper, but without rushing, waiting for the wax to contract and detach itself from the surface before pulling it off. He then examined the paper imprint of the seal, and declared it satisfactory if not perfect.
"Can you explain what you did? We dared not disturb your concentration as it seemed to be the delicate part of the task, just from how focussed you were?"
"Sure, Harold. When the wax was well melted, but before it began bubbling, I spread it in the area under witch I had placed the sponge. That begins the cooling process and I have very little time to do the next steps. I heat the bronze surface of the seal so it penetrates cleanly in the wax, making a clear image of it. I then slam my fist on the seal butt so the paper gets the imprint right through, but without breaking the paper, This gives the three-dimensional feeling of the Imperial and Royal seals. Then I must gently remove the seal without damaging the clarity of the cuts; this is best done by leaving the wax detach itself from the seal on its own. When this is done, I wait until the wax solidifies. It takes up to five minutes, depending on thickness of wax, quality of paper, and depth of incrustation, but it is vital. This one is almost ready."
Saying that, Daniel passed a finger tip over the wax, without touching it.
"No, not ready yet. Too hot still. Another minute, and to be safe, two minutes would be best."
"We can spare two minutes," said Samson, fascinated by the whole process.
Two minutes later, Daniel turned the parchment on its face and gently removed the sponge, which showed a clear outline of the Imperial seal, but not a drop of wax.
"Note there is no wax on the sponge. That means the paper was not pierced during the imprinting. It is a measure of quality. May I ask for a bowl of water, please. About the size of the sponge and twice as deep as it is thick?"
Harold obliged, and saw Daniel gently slip the sponge in the water. His eyes spoke the question and Daniel obliged: "The sponge must now be wet to recover its original shape and the imprint to disappear. That takes a couple of hours."
"So that is why some seals were sloppy!" exclaimed Harold. We forgot to change the sponge and let it rest! I am sure Paschal will be very glad to learn why! He was right in blaming the seal handler!"
Meanwhile, Daniel began examining the finished Imperial seal, commenting as he did so.
"The sealing did not break the paper, which is good. The wax is of uniform thickness, slightly thicker on the edges, in conformance to Imperial standards. The colour is uniform with no bubbles. The cuts are clean and the edges have not collapsed. The wax shows no craquelures, indicating it is fresh. Had I wanted to create a historical document, I would have made it so the wax cracked more on the edges than on the inside, as it dries off faster on the outside."
The others blinked.
"Transparency shows no definitive bubbles, only what is to be expected in wax that cooled down on contact with a substrate... This seal is deemed acceptable. Now, your signature, Harold."
The forger took out his quill, and cut it in a fine triangle that allowed the ink to enter the feather stem and drip on the paper with uniformity. He then took the ink well, choosing the gold ink, added a drop of solvent, closed the bottle and shook it violently for a good five minutes.
"The ink dries over time and needs to be dissolved back by adding a solvent that will evaporate quickly. I use a mix of 25% formaldehyde and 75% methanol. The first dissolves the big components of the ink and the later dissolves the smaller components, creating a fluid that is thick, of uniform colour, spreads from the quill point uniformly, and dries quickly without leaving trace on the parchment. I make my own ink, and it is composed of different organic and mineral compounds. For gold ink, such as this one, it is mostly mineral in nature and will retain its colour for a long period of time. But, like any ink, it will eventually fade... in a hundred years under the worst condition, and probably in a thousand in the best preservation environment. I could make it look old, by adding reagents that would tarnish the ink, pale it, or make it flake a lot faster. But we want this to last in pristine condition... at least until the execution."
Daniel, satisfied by the fluidity of the ink after adding a tiny drop of solvent and shaking the bottle again, took the quill, dipped its tip and signed Harold's name in one fluid move.
"Note that I hesitated where Harold usually does in his signature, pressed harder where he does, and barely touched the paper where he only flies over, mainly at the beginning and end of his name, the title, where he hesitates somewhat, as if he had doubts, and on the date. I dated this execution as of today. Sir, why do you hesitate? Maybe you do not know what title to put forward? As for the date, I suspect you must think of what day it is for some reason. Old age?"
"You brat!" said Harold as the others laughed.
"I told you you were beginning to suffer from Alzheimer's!" said Colibri, between guffaws.
"But, brat, how do you know all this about my signature?"
"The ink is thicker where you halt or slow down, and is thinner where you feel secure."
More blinking followed. "And what else can you tell me from it?"
"The way your signature lays on the side tells me you really want to work for others, that you are right-handed, and that your right-hand thumb must show cramps after a long series of signatures. It begins to change, and show impatience and pain. And that you hold the quill way too hard. It will not fly off, you know. The bird is long dead!"
"By the Gods! That, Daniel, is so true you are making me feel insecure."
"No need, I am not interested in your job. Forging things is so much funnier! Now, Colibri, how about you introduce me to Coubertin?"
"I will find him on my own. That name is rare enough I will find him."
"Good luck with that, the Elves are evenly distributed in Thebes and it is the size of red giant by now. And Elves are notorious for their mobility. After all, this is how you escaped my tracking capacities, young man! You never slept in the same area more than a night!"
"While we are on tracking, have you heard anything about the task I assigned to the Alpha security team?"
"They ignored the request for two reasons: first, you are a female, not to use the word they employed, and they discounted the death because it was 'a tree' that got murdered. That is why I paid them a visit and bloodied Mitsuko," replied Harold. "Now, I was told by Colibri he instituted I-0 because of apprehended insurrection. The cleanup is in progress already."
"How many are involved?"
"So far, the number is at 320 and rising; there are many members of the police and security involved. I have begun to review the events ignored by the police for cause of bigotry, and they number in the order of several hundred thousand so far. Justice is being dealt swiftly, and victims compensated, with financial, psychological, and medical treatments. The Hospital is running a regeneration protocol just for the victims, and they occupy about 300,000 beds."
"Grr! I will not allow the rebirth of this kind of event and system. The Mandarin system dies! Continue your cleanup."
"Yes, Prince Colibri?"
"Split some of your processing power to track the finances and holdings of these Mandarins. I suspect they not only abused their powers, but they also defrauded the State, extorted the defenceless, and murdered those that opposed them in their ascension or financially."
"We have already begun that process and found over six hundred million Crowns were pilfered from the Imperial treasury. Time travel allows us to recover the pilfered assets and recover both money and goods. Some had rather costly tastes."
"When We think that We wanted everything free on board, and We noticed the people needed an incentive to involve themselves in anything so We installed a financial system, only to be defrauded. We are sick and tired of all this. Just look at Danny: he defrauds the Treasury by making false expenditure bills for candy... What next? We despair of getting things right."
"I am sorry, Harold. I did not know it hurt anyone. For me, the Emperor was only a shadow, not even a name, much less a person. Now, I know better."
Harold hugged the crying boy, trying to comfort him.
"It is human nature to see no further than their next meal, young Man."
"It is the nature of life at large, Harold." Colibri stated matter-of-factly.
"Harold, do you want this young Man to be under the Family Umbrella?" asked Annabelle.
"So be it. Artificial Intelligences, register Daniel, also known as Danny, as Prince Daniel from now on. You are now in charge of fighting counterfeit, developing counterfeit-resistant means of propagating Imperial orders. Your family will be under Imperial protection, minus your sperm donor."
"Imperial decree by Empress Annabelle promoting Daniel to Prince registered at 11:14:34 on the fiftieth year of Thebes, the eleventh month, the twelfth day. Prince Daniel, you now have a suite in the Imperial palace. Report as soon as convenient to the Imperial medical station for a full body regeneration cycle, ensuring you will grow to your full potential."
"We do not age. Neither will you," said Colibri.
"What about Mom?"
"She will be given support and extra-fine medical care, but the promotion applies only to you, Danny," said Harold. "She will have a place within our residence, but it is not part of the Imperial Suite. She will be given a job that will be fit for her competence."
"Mom sold herself to sustain me..."
"That, on the other hand, will stop. She can find someone to love, but selling herself is now out of the question," said Annabelle. "If she needs training to achieve her dream, she will get it. I still do not understand why people are doing this kind of work."
"Annabelle, prostitution is the oldest running business in the world. I agree it is strange that it is still practiced, but people sometime lack ambition and will to grow, and end up at the lowest rung of the ladder. It is sad that they are so badly seen by the well-thinkers who are the first to use their services and abuse them. Some, probably like his mom, are dealt a lousy set of cards. We will do our best to help your Mother. Daniel, but do not forget that the best person to help her is herself. She needs to want to improve her lot."
"I know, and that worries me. Mom is passive in the face of events, and considers her lot fate. 'When you are born for crumbs, you are not born for white bread' she says all the time. Why do you think I decided to learn forgery? I have no intention of living my life with that mental set. I suspect she will collapse and live off my earnings, unaware that they too have limits, and will behave as if I was a bottomless pit of wealth. The moment I apply pressure to bring her under control, she will blow a fuse."
"What do you want, then?"
"I want her well-cared, but she must never learn of my ascension. Never. It might sound selfish at first glance, but it is the only way I know that will stop her from rapid self-destruction. Just monitor her, and I will be sending in some cash, once in a while, but never enough for her to go off on a bend, and that is all. I have no brothers or sisters. AI? On her next medical, have her tied. She is not fit to be a mother and it is not proper to put another child in her care. Just do not tell her."
"How will you send her anything?"
"Via the banking system. I have over a hundred bank accounts around Thebes, under different names, and even if she tracked the money one way or another to one of them, it would never show much balance historically. I always deposit cash, retire cash, and keep the balance so low I do not earn interest. For her, I am as poor as she is, and that is the way it must stay."
"Are you poor?"
"I am. Why bother forging for candy if I could afford them?"
"You will no longer be poor, but I understand your point. Artificial Intelligences? Help shield Prince Daniel from maternal investigations or well-intentioned nosey-bodies," ordered Harold.